Culture War Escalates as House Considers "Violence" Exception to First Amendment

June 11, 1999 12:00 am

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Friday, June 11, 1999

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today said that the culture war engulfing Capitol Hill is likely to escalate next week as the House considers a new measure that would create a “violence” exception to the First Amendment.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-IL introduced the new measure this week as part of the ongoing debate over juvenile justice and gun control. The Hyde measure, H.R. 2036, would criminalize the exhibition, sale or loan of “sexual or violent materials” to minors.

“The Hyde bill is so broadly written that its prohibitions could affect the Internet, museums, libraries, schools and even news photographs or broadcasts,” said Terri Schroeder, an ACLU Legislative Representative. “Even conservative Republicans have suggested that it goes too far and threatens to ‘erase’ the First Amendment.”

The ACLU said that if adopted, the Hyde legislation would ultimately fail constitutional muster. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that “violent” speech can only be restricted when it is both intended and likely to incite imminent violence. To do otherwise, courts have found, would be to ban a wide range of controversial expression.

“Again and again, Congress postures with censorship legislation that the courts then find unconstitutional,” Schroeder said. “Two years ago this month, for example, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Communications Decency Act, which similarly sought to criminalize so-called ‘indecency’ on the Internet.”

In fact, ever since the beginning of the television age, Congress has sought to control “violent images.” In 1952, for example, the first Congressional hearings on television violence were held. In addition, the ACLU said, studies have repeatedly found that some of the most “violent” images appearing on television and in other media include historical documentaries and news footage.

“The Hyde plan is yet another example of the government’s heavy-handed effort to dictate the use of our remote controls,” Schroeder said. “This bill should give pause to families who believe that parents – and not the federal government — should have ultimate say on what their kids watch.

“Those who seek these restrictions obviously think the American public cannot be trusted to turn off their own televisions,” Schroeder said.

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